Pastors and Porn: Disqualified?

In the post “Pastors and Porn,” I asked a lot of questions and didn’t give a lot of answers. The questions revolved around what should be done in a situation where a pastoral staff member’s struggle with pornography and/or other sexual sin becomes known. This is a scenario that is tragically becoming more and more common, most recently with Tullian Tchividjian’s resignation from Coral Ridge Presbyterian because of a confessed affair.

One of the easiest (and I believe, most dangerous) reactions to Tullian’s failure is to rush to a reactionary extreme of rejecting/discounting everything he has preached about grace. To say, “You see, that’s what happens when you’re soft on sin.” And then to start hurling stones.

Of course there’s another reaction that I believe can be dangerous as well. To swing to the opposite extreme of doing absolutely nothing is also not good. Sometimes strong advocates of gracious response to sin can forget that grace and forgiveness do not remove all consequences.

However, I believe that in the church, we fail much more often on the former extreme than on the latter one. It’s rare to find a situation within an evangelical church where a leader falls and nothing is done about it. What tends to happen most often is immediate termination often accompanied by an unexplained disappearance. A vague “resignation” will be announced but very little (if any) further information is shared, leaving the church to wonder what happened.

Here’s the thing. Everyone in the church struggling with sexual sin knows EXACTLY what happened. And what they see unfolding is precisely why they double down on their commitment never to let anyone know their struggles. Their worst fear is that if they were ever exposed, life would be over. There would be no safe place for them within the church, only rejection.

Leaders, we must handle these situations using our minds and our hearts.

I don’t mean excusing or even making light of them. And yes, it may be entirely necessary for the person to lose his job. But I hope that we wouldn’t go there as the assumed first and only option, as if we were on some sort of auto-pilot. “Well, of course we have to fire him.”

Are you sure?

Imagine and elder’s meeting in a typical evangelical church. One of the pastors comes to the meeting and tells the elders that he is deeply convicted and has a confession he needs to make.

“Brothers, I need to confess that I’ve been…”

“…speeding. Every single day I drive 15-20 mph over the speed limit virtually everywhere I go.”

“…gossiping. There are people I know and I’ve been talking negatively about them in really hurtful ways.”

“…overeating. I’ve been running to food as a stress reliever, and I feel like it’s out of control.”

“…occasionally having too much to drink. There are times when I definitely know that I’ve had too much, and I keep doing it.”

“…looking at pornography. I have a real struggle with masturbation and fantasy that has me worried that it might escalate to something else.”

“…having an affair. It started when I began counseling her, and it has turned physical over that past few months.”

How would we respond to each of these situations? How should we? How about with truth? If we use Titus 1 or 1 Timothy 3 as our basis on qualification for pastoral leadership, then a case could be made that every single one of the situations above should result in termination. But if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we would be shocked if at least 2-3 of them actually had that result. Why? Because somehow we’ve become conditioned that some expressions of sin aren’t so bad, while others are simply terrible.

Again, why?

So, how about if we respond with grace? Lovers of a grace message love to remind others of Paul’s shared struggle in Romans 7, and the message is well received. Paul’s sin struggle is one that all of us can identify with, and when his dilemma culminates in the incredible reminder that “there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” we all want to stand and shout “Amen!” Paul reminds leaders in Galatians 6 to gently restore those caught in sin, keeping a watch on themselves because they are not exempt from the same sin.

But if we take this message of grace to an application of no consequences, is this really what Scriptures intend? I don’t think so, and I believe that there are more than enough Scriptures that clearly indicate God’s high standard of personal morality for those in leadership.

So who gets fired and who doesn’t?

This is where we have an opportunity to experience response in grace AND truth. And to ask if whether or not to fire him is even the primary question we should immediately be asking. What if instead, we asked questions such as…

“What does this man (and his family) need from us right now, as he’s walking through this time?”

“How can we lead the church well as we all walk through discipline and restoration together?”

“How can we best honor God’s Word as well as His heart of grace and forgiveness through this awful situation?”

“Do we need to make a decision on his employment status right now?”

The last question is one that I believe is wisely asked. What is the hurry? Why the perceived need to so quickly distance ourselves from this dirty sinner? That may not be the intent, but very often it is exactly what is silently communicated.

I believe that there are many factors that can help leaders determine what is the best course of action in situations of pastoral failure. A future post will delve into some of them a little more deeply. But for now, are leaders of the church ready to wade into deep, messy, unfamiliar waters of restoration, trusting that God will direct their decisions? We must remember God’s promise given through James, when he writes…

319-James-PageShotsIf any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:5-8, ESV)

God has promised to guide us through these places. Will we trust Him to do it?